Twelfth Night is a play about desire’s power to override conventions of class, religion, and even gender. Several characters begin the play believing they want one thing, only to have love teach them they actually want something else. Orsino thinks he wants Olivia, until he falls in love with Viola (dressed as Cesario.) Olivia thinks she wants to be left alone to mourn her brother, until she also falls in love with Cesario. She then thinks she wants Cesario, until she meets Sebastian. Malvolio thinks he wants to be a straight-laced Puritan, until the prospect of Olivia’s favor causes him to act like a fool. As Twelfth Night is a play about overturning the social order, the most sophisticated characters prove to have the least self-knowledge, while the least sophisticated characters easily see through the pretensions of their so-called superiors. Desire acts as a leveling force, forcing characters to gain self-knowledge. Orsino realizes his love for Olivia is misguided, Olivia abandons her vow not to love for seven years, and Malvolio is revealed as the pompous jerk he really is. Feste the Fool has the last word, ending the play with a bittersweet song suggesting the darker aspects of reality lurk under the frivolity and merriment of the play.
Because the play is primarily about the power desire has over people, love-struck characters who cannot come together provide both the forward momentum and the source of conflict in Twelfth Night’s plot. The first conflict we encounter involves Orsino and Olivia. In the first scene, we learn that Duke Orsino believes himself very much in love with Olivia. Olivia, on the other hand, is determined to mourn her brother’s death and has sworn to stay cloistered for seven years without showing her face. She will therefore not accept the overtures of a suitor (at least not this one). We immediately suspect the sincerity of the two characters’ decisions. Duke Orsino, for instance, seems enamored more by the idea of pining for Olivia than the actuality of courting her, and would rather outsource the hard work of his romance to an emissary like Cesario. Similarly, Olivia’s grief is showy and self-conscious. Both characters are frozen in their self-regard, and require some external force to activate them.
Viola’s arrival incites change in the other characters. Of the main characters, she is by far the most willful, and serves as an obvious contrast to Olivia and Orsino. Unlike Orsino and Olivia, Viola is purposeful and decisive: she knows what she wants and she sets about trying to get it. Her actions are propulsive, setting the story in motion, whereas the actions of Orsino and Olivia are reactive. In Act I, scene v, Viola, disguised as Cesario, sets off to woo Olivia on Orsino’s behalf. The interchange between Orsino, Cesario, and Olivia set up the central conflict of the rest of the play, and introduce the idea that love and desire can transcend gender. Olivia believes Cesario is a boy, but as Orsino says, Cesario makes a very feminine boy: “all is semblative a woman’s part.” (I.iv.). Despite (or because of) Cesario’s resemblance to a woman, Olivia falls in love, while Cesario is developing feelings for Orsino. None of the lovers’ affections are requited, and Viola’s disguise as Cesario has complicated the plot to the point that even Viola feels helpless to untangle the mess: “It is too hard a knot for me to untie!”
In Act II, scene one, Sebastian and Antonio are introduced and the audience learns that, rather than drowning at sea, Sebastian is alive, and believes his sister, Viola, is dead. Sebastian’s announcement of his plan to go to Duke Orsino’s court increases the dramatic tension, as the audience understands a reunion of the siblings is inevitable. Once Sebastian arrives in Illyria, he lashes out violently against Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, and accepts Olivia’s amorous advances. The characters think Sebastian is Cesario and treat him accordingly, while Sebastian has no idea why he is being treated this way. The audience knows the reason behind the misunderstanding, increasing the tension as we wonder when the plot will finally untangle. Meanwhile, Viola unwittingly betrays Sebastian’s friend Antonio. The mayhem increases further with Maria, Toby, and Andrew’s plot to humiliate Malvolio, whose bizarre behavior gets him locked up. The riotous pile-up of confusion and mistaken identities further strains the precarious configuration of love interests and Viola’s struggle to uphold her identity as Cesario. Something must break and soon, the question is just when and where this crack will take place.
Once all of the characters are present in one place in Act V, the exposure of identities becomes both inevitable and imminent. Once Cesario and Sebastian are seen together, Viola’s disguise is no longer tenable. Rather than being dismayed by the revelation of Viola’s deception, neither Olivia nor Orsino seems to mind having been fooled by her. Olivia is just as happy married to Viola’s twin, Sebastian, while Orsino is eager to marry Cesario now that he knows Cesario is really a woman. Curiously, Orsino seems in no hurry for Cesario to change back to into a dress. Olivia and Orsino’s ease in switching their emotions (Olivia from one person to another, Orsino from friendship to romantic love) substantiate our sense from the beginning that both characters are somewhat shallow and fickle. More importantly, the play ends happily for Viola, who is reunited with her beloved brother and joined in marriage with her beloved Orsino. The play ends with a series of marriages (Viola and Orsino, Olivia and Sebastian, Maria and Sir Toby) that untangle the confusion and restore order and civility to Illyria.